Adm. Manfred Nielson, German Navy, NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, discusses capability development, driving innovation, lessons learned from the alliance’s recent Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, great power competition, Russia and more with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Allied Command Transformation’s 13th annual Chiefs of Transformation Conference in Norfolk, Va. Our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
German Navy Admiral Manfred Nielson
Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation
NATO ACT Chiefs of Transformation Conference
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at NATO Allied Command Transformation’s Annual Chiefs of Transformation Conference, the leading gathering of innovators from across the Atlantic alliance, from the 29 member nations as well as participating partner and observer nations. Our coverage here is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
We’re positively honored to have with us the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, German Navy Admiral Manfred Nielson. Sir, thanks very much for taking time out of your big conference to spend with us.
Admiral Manfred Nielson: Thank you very much for having the opportunity to discuss a little bit about our intention here in the conference.
You are right, we invited all NATO nations, 29 NATO nations. But additionally, over 40 partner nations, which is important because when we are looking forward to a future operations, future environment, we can’t see that any operation will be conducted without the support of partners. And partners does not mean only military partners. But looking, for instance on the African continent, I’m deeply convinced that for instance the Red Cross has much more situational awareness about this continent than many other military nations.
Mr. Muradian: Let’s start with capabilities development. That’s something that the command has always informed, but now that’s a formal mission that the alliance made to vest that capability. We’re going to be talking to General Tom Sharpy who is doing the capability development mission now for the alliance.
Talk to us a little bit about how you’re going to take this idea and turn it into reality, given that the alliance, everything we heard in terms of the introduction here, but also over the past few years is about that return to great power competition, about trying to deter Russia, to respond to increasingly rapid technology cycles. How do you take the guidance and translate it into results?
Admiral Nielson: Let’s focus a little bit to the past. When we talked about capabilities we truly meant platforms — ships, tanks, and aircraft. In the past it is really true that defense development influenced pretty strong the civilian environment. But I’m deeply convinced that I don’t know exactly when, but it’s already a couple of years ago it changed. The civilian trend setters like the Googles, the Amazons and other small company startups are the game-changers. Because nowadays we have to realize that we are really good in platforms like tanks, ships, and airplanes, but we lost the added value we could receive from artificial intelligence, big data, and autonomous systems. From my perspective, nowadays I think the non-defense industry has influenced the social, the overall environment much more than we had in mind in the military in total.
Mr. Muradian: How in this environment, though, what are the keys to innovation from your standpoint? Military people cling sometimes to ideas and everybody says hey, change. But the military is conservative for a reason because there are lives at stake and the operational success of a mission. So militaries find it very, very hard to give up and to make some of those disruptive leaps that we even in our lives will make because the stakes are relatively low in it.
What’s the right approach to thinking about innovation, to adopting some of these cycles, that are from your standpoint the kind of game-changing disruption that we all need to embrace?
Admiral Nielson: Let me stress, for instance, an example. What is our overall goal as a military? To protect our people and operations. This is a hard job. And I’m deeply convinced, for instance there is a technology available in which we can’t completely prohibit that soldiers will be killed in the operations. But I think we can much more anticipate what’s going on.
Let’s start with sharing information, data. Looking in the past, what are the common take-aways from all terroristic attacks? The information was available in all countries but everybody has only had a piece of information in fact, but nobody put the pieces together so that we could anticipate a kind of picture. I name this [Evalis]. So these possibilities are dealing with trust.
In the Cold War, we were closely allied, we knew exactly that we had to be in our prepared and pre-planned areas within 24 minutes. Later on when we were much more focused on crises, we thought the sharing of information and the velocity can be decreased.
In operations currently, let’s take an example. Everybody is aware of AWACS, for instance, in the future. And we will replace AWACS by, or we have to replace AWACS by the end of the next decade. The past procedure would be hey, let’s decide today about the new airplane and then implement perhaps all the ingredients you need for surveillance and so on.
Nowadays we started the process with a question, is it really necessary to have a manned platform? Or are other possibilities available?
The drone technology, for instance, offers us a lot of possibilities. Drones can stay much longer in the operation area. They don’t have crews. So we can even risk the loss of a drone because these drones are becoming cheaper and cheaper. This enhances the protection of our people in the operation.
Or let’s talk about a different, autonomous systems. When we are talking about the EOD business in the past, people had to jump into the area. Nowadays we have autonomous systems. Okay. They can be involved in accidents, whatever, but it doesn’t cost lives. And that’s important to understand, that the new technology offers us more protection for people, for our soldiers in the operations.
Mr. Muradian: How do you do that with 29 nations and drive forward this agenda, when they’re sovereign nations. You may have a game-changing idea, for example, that gets developed in one country, but another looks at it and says wait a minute. This is going to disrupt my national industries, or the investment that I’m already making.
What’s the right way for the alliance to approach this to get all 29 of these countries moving in the same direction so you don’t end up with a patchwork of capabilities, some of which are on the high end, and others may be a little bit more old fashioned?
Admiral Nielson: What are all 29 nations sharing? Artificial intelligence, big data, autonomous systems are available. And I’m deeply convinced that in all nations there is lots of expertise, knowledge, but we didn’t put it together and connect it.
When we are talking, for instance, about a future NATO-EU cooperation. It doesn’t make sense to develop capabilities for NATO and EU because we have a single set of forces. And I’m deeply convinced, the overall environment is changing. All technologies are not in a position that they are God-given and they will lead their business into the future. And the new technologies under the umbrella of digitalization, will make it necessary that we change our mindset, that we are thinking about the advantages of the new technologies.
You know, when we are looking in green technology, we closed our coal mines, we closed our steel production because there are other opportunities. We should be much more optimistic, because if the technology is available, they will use it, and there’s another driving factor. Everything which can become [software] will become [software] into the future. And then we have to think about how to deal with this, and what is the impact on the military environment?
The train with the new technologies has left the train station for a couple of years already. Currently we see only the back lights of the train. Our intention should be to bridge the gap. But first of all I think the military has to understand that the non-defense industry is the game-change of us and we have to take care that we at least keep sight on the back side of the train.
Mr. Muradian: From the standpoint of capability developments, one of the important things is for you to think as creatively as your adversaries. Russia, for example, has proven, and China, to really exploit hybrid, gray, cyber, disinformation. Are you satisfied that the officers that compose this command and are in the leadership of the alliance fully appreciate and are thinking as disruptively, as creatively to wargame future capability scenarios, whether they’re in cyber, whether they’re in electronic warfare, to out-think the enemy. And as I think General Sharpy today said, we the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky said, skate to where the puck is going to be, not where the puck is, for example.
Admiral Nielson: First of all, I would state, we are on a good track. But first of all, we should change our structure, our command structure, our organization. And now we are asking nations, send us qualified people. Because when you are talking about strategic communications, hybrid warfare, we are in competition with the nations because all nations are lacking qualified people. But ACT can only do this new task with a minimum amount of support of the nations. So we are 500 people here in Norfolk. We can’t solve all the problems, but we can give initiative, we can start the discussion. We can connect the nations, especially not only in the military environment, but especially with the new young startups.
And to be very frank, of course if I would have a wish free, I would replace one-third of the staff of officers in ACT with young people because I’m in my 46thyear of service, so I am very much experienced but I’m not aware, personally not aware about the advantages these new technologies can offer us.
Let me stress an example. I spent six weeks ago in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Poland is a training facility and we will completely build a new organization in Poland. We invited for instance young people from all over the world, industry, for executing experiments. We conducted within four weeks more than a thousand experiments, and this will save us money, and it was inspiring to see how these young people are dealing with special topics, special questions. Completely different than we do with our background and our routine business in the past. They are sometimes exciting. They offer you solutions. I think we would have asked several companies and spent millions of euros and dollars in order to get the way ahead.
Mr. Muradian: Failing fast is always seen as a key. Are you failing as fast as you need to fail? Are you being bold enough in some of these experiments and willing to say, which has been the key to changing warfare, which is we’re going to make some bets and we’re going to see which ones of them succeed.
Admiral Nielson: Of course. I think that’s the big challenge to go at the speed of relevance. I like to stress the last huge NATO exercise, Trident Juncture. Even in this exercise we implemented 20-30 experiments and the outcome was exciting.
Many people need to have the possibility to see with their own eyes what’s possible.
For instance, 3D printing. In the military environment when I started the discussion two years ago and in the NATO, [ambassadors], they said okay, go away, in five years — then they could see with their own eyes that we constructed drones in the battlefield within hours. Three years ago we started 3D printing with plastic. Two years ago it was already steel, and now we are talking about carbon. So that demonstrates how fast these technologies are developing.
It’s not an option. It’s mandatory that we implement these possibilities into the military environment. That’s a hard way to go because we are a little bit fenced by our experience, by our processes, by our procedures. But I would once again underpin, what is our main task? Give the soldiers the best protection they could get, and that’s important and we have to change our mindset. And we have to perhaps increase the speed of decision-making which can not only be done by the military environment, but especially even the political environment.
Mr. Muradian: You deal with political leaders all the time, especially at the senior-most levels of the alliance, and at the end of the day NATO is a political alliance which has military capability. Do civilian leaders understand, everybody is always pushing for the most efficiency out of how money is spent, but if you have a model where you’re going to experiment and fail, that means you’re going to be spending money and failing.
Do you think that political leadership finally is accepting the need to do multiple experiments and practice and accelerate decision-making cycles? Do you sense that big change that’s necessary? Because militaries tend to follow political leaders, and sometimes militaries tend to be ahead of political leaders. Do you think the political leadership support is there for a fail-fast, and a faster approach overall?
Admiral Nielson: In general I think there is support, because everybody is not only a politician or military, we enjoy the possibilities of new technology in our civilian life.
Of course the change of mindset takes sometimes a little bit longer than expected, but when we are talking about digitalization which is on the table in all nations. Everybody has to realize that we have to change, and if I learn — and I learned, of course — that for instance new startup companies, from the first idea to money of a new idea, new business, sometimes it takes only 90 days. Then I think we have to think about hey, what kind of impact will these slow speeds we are currently looking for which kind of impact we would have, once again on the protection of our people in the operation.
That’s, I think a comparison look at terroristic attacks, to protect our citizens. The same approach, a little bit different stopping point.
Mr. Muradian: And some programs, of course, span decades just to define, for example, before you get to it.
Admiral Nielson: And I think that’s important to understand. In the past, we thought we can precisely predict how a future tank 30 years ahead should look like and we failed, because in 30 years so many things changed that we had to realize the tank came too late, not in line with our expectation, and totally out of the cost frame. That’s a new understanding.
Allied Command Operations in Europe, which is our sister command, is responsible for operation. We have the task of warfare development. That means how to make NATO fit that the organization can fulfill its [inaudible] quotas even decades ahead.
So how to connect operations with adaptations? And we have to understand that the pace has significantly increased, and in an era of big data it will not change. The opposite is the case. We have to be much faster and much quicker. Then we should look for perhaps an 80 percent solution instead of the 120 or 30 percent solution.
Mr. Muradian: And then have it in service shorter. So instead of saying I’m going to spend 20 years developing a tank that will last 50 years, spend two years developing a tank that will be good for the next 10 years and then decide what happens after that.
Admiral Nielson: Maybe. I’m convinced we will the tanks, ships and airplanes in the future, but the new technologies will offer a lot of game changes.
Let me stress a little bit the new aircraft carrier generation. I had the privilege to visit the UK aircraft carrier a couple of weeks ago here.
Mr. Muradian: And we were both aboard the ship at the same time, which was great.
Admiral Nielson: Absolutely. And this ship is only 100 feet shorter than the brand new American Gerald Ford aircraft carrier. But I was deeply impressed that the United Kingdom is operating this aircraft carrier including the whole flight crew, with less than 1500 people. The United States needs more than 5,000 people on their brand-new class.
Why could this be managed? Because from the very beginning in the construction phase they thought about the benefits and the advantages of artificial intelligence and that’s the main driver that they could save people and offer much more comfort. On board this ship, the cabins are only for four to six people. There are fiber possibilities so that the people can be connected with their families the whole day and night. Every week, they can get the possibility to ring up their families by phone, 30 percent for free.
So I think is important to understand. Yes, we have a clear task in the military to defend our countries, to fight against aggressors. And on the other hand, the driving factors for all societies will be demographics. So far I would say don’t hesitate to take best advantage of the new technologies because this will make the nations stronger.
Mr. Muradian: I have three questions, because I know your time is short.
First I’d ask you about Trident Juncture and some of the lessons learned. Obviously in improving capabilities you talked about the importance of experimentation. The command worked for four years to structure this extraordinary exercise, the largest for the alliance since the end of the Cold War.
Talk to us a little bit, and I know you’ll be studying the outputs for this for some time, but what are for you sort of the two or three top lessons learned already from this operation?
Admiral Nielson: The first lesson is, because we started experimentation under real-time conditions. The first lesson is, there is no way backwards. We need these real-time conditions for experimentation, and this was appreciated and accepted from all nations.
Secondly, we have to put into these operations civilian companies so that they are not doing research only in their own labs, but test their new thoughts, new ideas, new equipment under real-time environment. And I think the last point, we demonstrated and it was necessary to conduct such a large-scale exercise, that NATO is ready to fight against any aggressor.
Mr. Muradian: Because it was an Article 5 defense in Northern Europe.
You’ve spent 46 extraordinary years in uniform, and you were a Cold Warrior. Your colleague, Andreas Krause, the Chief of the German Navy, would always point out that look, from a German perspective anti-access area denial is not a new term. That was what was going to be the case against the Soviet Union. He was a submariner. You were a minesweeper-man, and it’s extraordinary, the kind of missions you would have to execute both offensively but also defensively under intense fire.
There’s a lot of discussion about how this area is similar to the past. From your standpoint, you’re one of a handful of officers at this event that has that experience. Many are much younger and their experience much more is in a counterinsurgency mindset.
Talk to us a little bit about from your perspective what are the key lessons from that era that apply today, and what are things that do not apply from that era today?
Admiral Nielson: I think first of all, we had a completely different environment. It was the past, the Cold War environment, and it was, to be very frank, perhaps a little bit comfortable because we knew exactly who was the aggressor, where are the lines of defense and so on.
Nowadays we are talking about the 360-degree view. That means we can’t neglect the expertise and the past large-scale exercises, but we lost a lot of knowledge. I agree.
For instance, when we are fighting where in the world, we have to discuss the question of support. And host nation support, for instance. It was inside of all of us, so we knew exactly how to support the Americans who crossed the Atlantic in order to support Europe.
The biggest — and I think it’s still alive. So when we are talking about the new JSAC, when we are talking about the new JFC Norfolk, it’s a little bit revitalization of former awareness.
But we have to be prepared that NATO will be engaged in the future in a kind of 360-degree view, so we have to think a little bit different. The situation in Eastern Europe is completely different from a possible situation in the Arctic, or the situation in the southern part of Europe, in the Mediterranean, currently very much influenced by the migration crisis. It’s completely different than in Asia. And this is I think new, that we have to leave our comfort zones and to think a little bit different.
Have in mind that we are only a single set of forces. These forces must be differently trained and flexible, usable.
Mr. Muradian: And also the cyber battlefront affects everybody.
Admiral Nielson: You are right. And cyber is, for me, a perfect example that we have to leave our past way of thinking. Because what does cyber mean? When I was young and I went to a bank, 70 percent of the people were engaged in customer service. Nowadays 70 percent are engaged in protecting data, and that’s cyber.
Cyber, my view, will have a much stronger impact on civilian life than on the military life. Think about the attack on the UK hospital a couple of months ago. We have electronic data. So cyber attack links the whole system, and that will have much more impact on citizens’ opinion about cyber than to discuss this topic only in a military environment.
Mr. Muradian: Let me ask you one last question on Russia. There have been so many efforts, there have been sanctions that have been imposed on Moscow after its actions in Crimea, sanctions that have been put in place after election tampering in the United States. There is a debate in America whether or not enough was done. But Russia interfered in the French elections, and Brexit, tries to interfere in Germany, has tried to do so in Scandinavia. Now we have an incident that was in the Sea of Azov where those three Ukrainian vessels were captured. Now there are Russian tanks that are again building up on the border with Ukraine, raising tensions again.
Is the alliance doing enough to deter? Or do we need to think differently fundamentally about deterring an adversary?
If you look at it, the United States is doing a lot against China to deter it, for example, from hacking and cyber attacks, and yet they’re not working.
Does an alliance of nations need to think differently about deterring? Are there other tricks that we need to be using? Because these nations are using the rules of the international order almost and completely disregarding them, I should say.
Admiral Nielson: I think it’s pretty clear, we have to realize that Russia didn’t change from an enemy to a partner which was the case and the way of thinking in the ‘90s. Russia invaded into Ukraine. You mentioned other things. But NATO was prepared. So we created the enhanced forward presence which means we have four multinational battalions in Poland, in the Baltic states. The United States brought a fully equipped armored brigade to the eastern part of Europe.
Finally, of course, at the same time we should not break the communication line. I think in the final, Russia should be interested in good relationships with the Western Hemisphere because they are facing different challenges. But of course it’s a time of tension currently, and it was a big surprise I think, nobody was aware that the Cold War could come back to the European continent.
Mr. Muradian: Manfred Nielson, Admiral in the German Navy who is the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, sir, it was an honor and pleasure to both be at sea with you, but also to see you here in Norfolk.
Admiral Nielson: Thank you very much for giving the opportunity, and best regards to your citizens. I like to stay here in the United States. It’s a beautiful country. I will never forget the support we got from the very beginning when we came to the U.S., so I’m deeply convinced the U.S. will stay in NATO even into the future and [inaudible] the United States.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, thanks very much.
Admiral Nielson: Thank you.